The Magical Power of Empathy

Parental empathy, which is nothing more than simply reflecting your child's emotion and perspective by repeating it back, is the magic wand I wish I'd known about when my kids were little.

The magnificent book and DVD by Dr. Harvey Karp, The Happiest Toddler on the Block didn't exist back then. I muddled my way through to it eventually, and to be honest, I'm still working on making it my default response.

I still catch myself jumping into offering a solution to her problem right away, and I swear, every single time I do that, I am met with defensiveness. My daughter is the perfect barometer for me!

Here's a hot off the press example from my laundry room last week:

My daughter: I hate laundry!

Me (feeling cheerful and helpful): I can just throw yours in with mine tonight, honey.

My daughter: It's just that I REALLY hate laundry. I have no time to do it, I need my jeans for tomorrow, and I just hate it.

Me: I can take care of it for you.

My daughter: I just HATE it! I always have SO MUCH!

Me (starting to get annoyed, gritting my teeth just a little): Honey, I just said I would do it for you.

My daughter: But I just REALLY REALLY HATE IT!!

Me (finally waking up): It just drives you crazy that it keeps piling up all the time.

My daughter (sighing and settling down): Yeah, it sure does.

And she put her laundry in the washer and went upstairs, quiet and peaceful as a lamb.

I, on the other hand, just stood there with my mouth open, wondering, "What just happened here?"

It still amazes me how irrelevant actual solutions are most of the time. My tendency is to think I can help by taking away the source of the problem. But once there's an emotion triggered, it simply has to be acknowledged before anything else can happen. Nine times out of ten, she settles down after receiving empathy, and no actual solution is ever found.

Another example: She needed a filling, which she hates getting. For years, whenever we'd leave the dentist after getting bad news, I'd spend the whole car ride home trying to convince her that it wouldn't be that awful. (Remember, last time you said it wasn't too bad? This new dentist is so great. She's really gentle and experienced. I'm sure it won't hurt. We can tell her you want one of those little things to hold your mouth open for you. Maybe you can wear your iPod. Yadda yadda yadda.)

But old dogs really can learn new tricks, so this time, I said not one word in the car. As we left the office, I said, "Oh man, I know how much that is NOT what you wanted to hear today." And then I SHUT UP and concentrated on my breathing the whole way home.

She went straight to her room. An hour or so later, she came out, and it was like nothing had ever been wrong. Same thing happened when she was complaining about a difficult homework assignment. I finally stopped trying to "help her" figure out who she could call for help, and started doing dishes nearby. She decided to go for a run, and came back fine. Turns out she works through things much faster on her own than with my "help." Can you imagine? :)

She just needed empathy. Not solutions. So that's my new motto (inside my head.) Empathy, not solutions. Empathy, not solutions.
Believe me, I still need a lot of practice, and have to remind myself every day after school while she's telling me about the Drama of the Day. Here's a peek at my inner dialogue: Take a breath. Wait. Empathy, not solutions. But I have good advice! Empathy, not solutions. Breathe. But if she would listen to me, I could tell her what to do to make this better! Empathy, not solutions. Breathe. Sit back. Wait. Only express understanding - no fixing. Breathe.

And the truth is, if she really does want my help figuring something out, she always comes right out and asks me. And it never ever happens until I've given empathy first.

Parenting sure is a process, ain't it? I'm learning new stuff all the time.

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